Everybody knows that professional wrestling is fake, right? It’s all performative (“kayfabe”), there’s good guys (the “face”), bad guys (the “heel”), nobody’s getting hurt and none of it is actually real. Well tell that to the Von Erich family, possibly the most influential and cursed family in the history of wrestling.
In the 1970s and 80s, before being swallowed up by the conglomerate powerhouse today known as WWE, there were multiple wrestling territories across the USA. One of these was the WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling) whose owner Jack “Fritz” Von Erich (Holt McCallany) had a dream.
Fritz never won the world champion belt himself but as patriarch, he would raise his sons in his own image. Instilling in them a love of God, family and wrestling above everything else, pushing them to be stronger, tougher and greater than the competition, and ruling over them with an iron fist or an “Iron Claw”, the family’s signature move.
His sons Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simons) have been raised to be great, stoic men. But at what cost? As The defacto eldest (Jack Jr. dying as a child) Kevin sees the toll his father’s desire for a dynasty is taking on his family, yet still he’s unable to break free of it. Not wishing to disappoint Fritz, the brothers push themselves past breaking point, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of “the Von Erich family curse”. But professional wrestling is all make believe, nobody in the ring really gets hurt, right?
The Iron Claw comes written and directed by Sean Durkin. A fan of pro wrestling, Durkin grew up watching the Von Erich family climb to the heights of their celebrity, only for it to end in horror again and again and again. He aspired to bring this tale of a family, seemingly cursed with bad luck to the big screen. As a fan, he lends a respectful approach to their story, their craft and their torments.
The Von Erich family are a microcosm of the dangers associated with pro wrestling. That competitive nature and the drive to succeed is admirable in sports figures but wrestling in particular has racked up quite the body count. Many wrestlers’ names have become forever linked with the physical and emotional trauma received in the pursuit of becoming a legend. Not to mention the steroid or drug abuse needed to perform herculean acts of masculinity night after night.
But to say The Iron Claw is a film simply about toxic masculinity is missing the forest for the trees. What makes Durkin‘s approach so brilliant is the depth it allows its subject material. Pro wrestling isn’t simply portrayed as some phoney show but rather, it is treated with the reverence and gravitas the Von Erich‘s saw in it. The film treats the sport so seriously, we can respect and understand the effort these men put into their art as a result.
But also, this is a story about a family who do love each other, despite how toxic they appear. The Von Erich‘s were real people and Durkin treats his characters as such. Fritz wants his sons to become great and knows that they have it in them. Their mother Doris (Maura Tierney) refuses to sob for her sons as she legitimately believes it’s not her place to interfere. But things come inevitably crashing down around them and it feels almost like a Shakespearean tragedy.
The entire cast are amazing in The Iron Claw, but it is Zac Efron that completely blows it out of the water. In physicality alone, Efron has transformed himself into a hulk of a man. Bulking up to portray the very image of 1980s excess, it’s hard to think that he was “the small one” a few years ago in Baywatch next to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
But despite his size, Efron as Kevin comes across as likeable and caring. A gentle giant forced to watch his family deteriorate before his very eyes, torn between being another doomed titan like his father raised him to be and becoming his own man. It has been interesting seeing Zac Efron go from child star to heart throb, to comedic lead and now, in my opinion, a serious Oscar contender.
The chemistry between the leads caps off a film brimming with heart and pain. The Iron Claw can be an emotionally draining film for all its misery. It says something that the sixth and youngest brother, Chris, was not included in the film as it would have been one tragedy too many. But despite this and other omissions, Durkin paints an emotional and intimate portrait of the Von Erich family. Hitting viewers with as much devastating power as a suplex slam from the top rope.